View Our Catalog

Join Our E-Mail List

What's New

Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

Press Home

Attitudes, Innuendo, and Regulators: Challenges of Interpretation
Previous Page

Next Page


With an overview of how humor and innuendo are recognized, it is important to investigate the impact they have on a conversation. Norrick (1994) points out the contradictions mentioned above, that conversational joking is associated with both aggression and rapport. It is disruptive and yet can intensify cohesion. “If the attempt at humor is understood and accepted, participants in the conversation may enjoy enhanced rapport; but if hearers do not get the joke or feel joking is inappropriate in the current context, the result can be misunderstanding, disruption of involvement, and loss of rapport” (ibid, p. 411). Norrick explains that conversational joking is disruptive because it forces hearers to “disregard contextually obvious meanings and look for obscure interpretations outside the current topic and activity” (p. 411). He also points out that humor is volatile in that certain kinds of humor will be accepted in one setting but not another.

Fine (1983) made the same assessment regarding the participants involved. “Joking is a strategic activity. By that I mean that not everyone can joke about all topics in all situations” (p. 165). A contemporary example comes from an episode of Seinfeld. Jerry complains about another comedian who starts using Jewish material in his routine just after converting to Judaism. “I think he just converted for the jokes!” Seinfeld cries. The implication relates to the discussion above about inclusion and exclusion. Seinfeld contends that the comic has not been Jewish long enough to be considered a part of the community. He is still an outsider; therefore, the humor is offensive. Fine cites sociological studies that revealed humor is judged funnier when it disparages groups other than that of the addressee or holds the addressee’s group in esteem. Therefore, a Jewish joke told at a Jewish event will in all likelihood be regarded as a disruption if told by a non-Jew, but as an opportunity to increase rapport if told by a member of the community.

Norrick (1994) uncovers another paradox of conversational joking. Using punning as an example, he explains that humor is aggressive not only to the subject (target), but to the addressee as well. Because puns are usually not prefaced that way other jokes are, the humor is a pop quiz of sorts. By putting the addressee on the spot, the pun is aggressive. At the same time, punning “provides a way of talking off record, so that we can manipulate the flow of topics, test for shared background knowledge and attitudes, and realign participants in non-confrontational ways” (p. 415).

Much of the research and many of the examples in the paper deal generically with humor. The issues presented all apply to innuendo, but there are risks unique to this genre as well. The most obvious is the ability to disclaim a joke. A traditional joke is marked, and if the addressee rejects it, the speaker can shrug it off to some degree, saying, “It’s not my joke. It’s not like I wrote it or anything.” Innuendo is contextual and self-generated. In an article on conversational joking and identity display, Boxer and Cortes-Conde (1997) discuss the high risk involved in such an encounter. Their study on teasing showed that the encounters occurred between intimates and were meant to enhance the existing bond. Given the delicate nature of the speech act, however, the speaker could go too far.

Remember that meaning is negotiated between speaker and addressee. That allows for misinterpretations or faux misinterpretations that will affect the result. Zajdman (1995) listed possible outcomes of face-threatening acts (Table 4). It clearly shows that despite the speaker’s intent, the possibility exists that the utterance will not be received accordingly. Leggitt and Gibbs (2000) recognized the negotiation involved in their study of verbal irony. “Verbal irony critically depends on the desire to communicate intentions that do not directly match the words, and the correct interpretation of ironic language depends on recognizing that disparate intention” (p. 5). Tannen (1986) uses a baseball analogy to capture the spirit of exchanges like innuendo. “The speaker feels clever for having pitched a curve ball, the hearer for having caught it. But if the curve is not caught—if it hits someone in the head or flies out of the ball park—no one is happy” (p. 62).


Previous Page

Next Page